Emotional Impact and Description

(Don’t forget the Denver Worldcon writing meetup!)

Many times, in your writing, you will have a ‘scene’… a discrete piece of action that happens in one place, opens and closes. For this place, you will need to have some descriptive writing to show the place itself. Now, you probably won’t want to just dump a big chunk of description on the reader; they’ll skip it, sure as sunset. But there will be a few words or sentences scattered around that give an impression of the place this scene is happening.

It’s important to remember that the emotional impact of the scene itself, the action and dialogue, can be heightened or undermined by the description of the setting.

Here’s an example. If you have a scene where the character is moving through snow at night, there are at least two impressions that can be given by the setting. Howling winds, carrying sharp-edged ice slivers, low visibility, struggling through the knee-deep slush… or a clear, frosty, starlit night with the half-full moon spangling soft surfaces, wisps of fog arising from chilled lips. The first gives an impression of striving against a hostile environment, perhaps of despair or imminent death. The second, an impression of beauty and peace, with maybe Christmas around the corner. It might be confusing to the reader to give both impressions in one descriptive passage.

The shorter way to say all that is to say that the setting and description can serve the story, rather than be drawn at random or confusingly. That doesn’t mean you have to have the cliche level of weather following emotion obviously, the way it always rains during the sad bit in the movies. It can be far more subtle than that. And, of course, if you have the skill, you can flout this rule, like all the others, and draw a contrast on purpose. But be mindful of what you’re doing.

Descriptive writing is like the special effects in the movies. A good special effect is part of the overall emotional impact of the piece, serving the story and almost unnoticeable in itself. Bad special effects are up there in the spotlight making it painfully clear that the boys in the back room just wanted to digitally blow up the White House some more.

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